There are times where several of Montreal’s top prospects are years away from making an impact. That isn’t the case this time around as most of our top-five prospects are right on the cusp of being regular NHL players.
As we’ve done the last few years, the top-10 have been voted on by members of HabsWorld’s writing staff while I ranked the players from 11 through 33. Voting was done prior to the beginning of training camp. Here are the criteria that each player had to meet to be eligible to be in these rankings:
1) The player must be 24 years old or younger as of October 1, 2017
2) The player must have no greater than 55 games of NHL experience (including regular season and playoffs)
3) The player cannot be signed to an AHL contract
Here are the departures from last year’s list (previous ranking in parentheses):
Graduated: Artturi Lehkonen (2nd), Daniel Carr (6th)
Released: Matt Bradley (23rd), Ryan Johnston (26th), Mark MacMillan (27th), Connor Crisp (32nd), Dalton Thrower (33rd), Colin Sullivan (34th)
Traded: Mikhail Sergachev (1st), Tim Bozon (21st)
Included with each ranking is an estimate of each prospects’ NHL readiness date. For some players, the estimate is a specific season while others whose projected development paths are harder to determine will be in a range.
5) Charlie Lindgren
Goalie, St. John’s (AHL)
Undrafted free agent signing in 2016
Lindgren’s first full professional season was certainly a successful one. He took over the starting job with St. John’s right away and helped lead them to a playoff spot, a rarity for Montreal’s farm clubs in recent years. He also didn’t look out of place in a pair of games with the Habs either.
Lindgren isn’t the most technically-savvy goalie and uses his athleticism to stick with the play. If he can work on his positioning and become a bit more refined in that regard, he may still have some upside left in his game. As things stand, he’s a safe bet to be at least an NHL backup (evidenced by his run with the big club earlier this season) but his ability (or lack thereof) to improve his technique will be what determines if he has legitimate starting upside or not.
2016-17 Stats: 48 GP, 24-18-1 record, 2.56 GAA, .914 SV%, 5 SO
Previous HW Ranking: 9th
NHL ETA: 2018-19 – One could easily make a case that he’s NHL-ready now but a second full (or close to full) year in the minors is what appears to be in the cards. That will certainly help position Lindgren to make a run at battling Al Montoya for the backup spot next season.
4) Nikita Scherbak
Right Wing, St. John’s (AHL)
1st round pick (26th overall) in 2014
Scherbak’s sophomore year was a disappointment to many but I’d argue that the expectations were a bit unrealistic. He has always been known as a project and those players don’t magically put it all together at the age of 21. He made strides in his overall game, albeit some more than others.
Offensively, Scherbak has the talent to be a top-six forward in the NHL. It’s the rest of his game that will make or break him actually doing that though. His skating still needs work (and keeping his head up would be nice) and his defensive effort level, though better now than it was before, still needs to improve.
In terms of realistic expectations for this season, Scherbak should be counted on to be a key contributor offensively with Laval while continuing to slowly improve his defence and skating. An injury sustained with the Habs has set him back a bit but when he has been in the lineup, he has done exactly what he has needed to do.
2016-17 Stats: 66 GP, 13-28-41, -2 rating, 32 PIMS, 115 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 3rd
NHL ETA: 2018-19 – His waiver exemption expires after this season (even though he’ll still be on his entry-level deal) so that alone will have Scherbak in the NHL full-time. If he can maintain his torrid scoring pace to start the season with the Rocket, he could very well force Montreal’s hand to bring him up before then as well.
3) Ryan Poehling
Centre, St. Cloud State (NCAA)
1st round pick (25th overall) in 2017
Poehling was a bit of a surprise pick for the Habs back at the draft considering many had him pegged to be off the board by then. However, a mediocre freshman year certainly didn’t help his cause although the reason for that is largely understandable since he fast-tracked to play a year early. As a result, he was the youngest player in Division I last season.
Although he underwhelmed offensively in 2016-17, Poehling has typically been productive when playing against players his own age which provides some cause for optimism. The same can be said from his strong start to this season; he already has beaten his point total from last year in 21 fewer games.
As a natural centre that should be able to hold down that position as he turns pro, Poehling fits a big need for the Habs. He’s conscientious defensively and is decent on the draw (he has improved there compared to last year as well) which is why his floor is rather high; he’s a pretty safe bet to be at worst a third-liner. If his offence continues to progress, he could become a top-six centre which is something they haven’t developed internally in a long, long time.
2016-17 Stats: 35 GP, 7-6-13, -8 rating, 12 PIMS, 37 shots, 11 blocks, 192/419 faceoffs
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2019-20/2020-21 – Poehling isn’t going to be a player that needs all four years of college hockey before turning pro. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him sign following the 2018-19 season and the question at that time will be whether or not he’s capable of jumping into the NHL lineup right away or if he’ll need some time in the minors first.
2) Charles Hudon
Left Wing, St. John’s (AHL)
5th round pick (122nd overall) in 2012
Hudon didn’t take a massive leap forward last year by any stretch but he also didn’t need to. Already one of the top offensive players in the league, he picked up where he left off the year before and remained one of the elite scorers in the AHL. Despite that, he still didn’t get much of a look from Montreal.
There aren’t many questions with Hudon but those that are there are big ones. Can he stay healthy? That’s something he has struggled with at times going back to junior. Can he overcome his skating? Even with the faster pace of the NHL, he has certainly held his own so far.
Through the early going this season, Hudon has shown flashes of offensive upside although the results have rarely been there. If he can find a way to capitalize on more of those chances, he could be a key cog with the Habs for years to come. If not, he’s going to remain more of a depth piece.
2016-17 Stats: 56 GP, 27-22-49, +3 rating, 52 PIMS, 161 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 7th
NHL ETA: 2017-18 – I was tempted to put last year here as he was more or less ready by then but the Habs chose to keep him in the minors. It’s hard to be too frustrated with that decision as the extra time certainly doesn’t seem to have held Hudon back any.
1) Noah Juulsen
Defence, Everett (WHL)
1st round pick (26th overall) in 2015
This was one of the tighter writer votes for first overall that we’ve had over the years. Hudon actually had more first-place votes but Juulsen’s lowest was still in the top-five and that wound up being the difference.
Juulsen followed up a so-so post-draft season with a much better one in 2016-17. In particular, his offensive game, which more or less went by the wayside the year before, came back in a big way. It didn’t come at the expense of his defensive play either.
That said, his bread and butter in the NHL will be his play in his own end. He’s a smart defensive player who knows how to get to the right spots and can punish players physically from time to time as well. He’s also a pretty strong skater and that type of mobility is crucial in the NHL. Juulsen doesn’t have top-pairing upside but should settle in quite nicely as a minute-eating top-four defender and that is certainly something the Habs can use now and in the future.
2016-17 Stats: 49 GP, 12-22-34, +15 rating, 38 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: 5th
NHL ETA: 2018-19 – Even though Juulsen missed two months to start the season, I think he’s going to move through the minors pretty quickly. He’s already in a top-four role with Laval and I wouldn’t be surprised if he lands on the top pairing before too long. He’s a steady enough player that he’ll likely see some playing time with Montreal at some point this season which should give him a leg up on a full-time spot come October.